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Health and Fitness Life and Wellbeing Mental Health Running Swimming Travel Trekking Weight Loss

Putting Your Heart Into Your Dreams

Understanding and monitoring your Heart Rate during exercise can give you amazing insights into your general health and performance

Advice on these pages are taken from my own personal experience and do not constitute professional advice. Everyone’s experience and ability is different. Before starting on any new physical activity it is a good idea to consult a Doctor. It may also be beneficial to work with a Coach or a Guide to develop the necessary skills to support such activity.

We were still in the early stages of our ascent out of Glencoe when we made our first brief stop. My watch had beeped and vibrated to let me know that my heart rate was approaching Max Heart Rate. As soon as we stopped and took in the amazing scene around us my heart rate began to drop. Within a few minutes I heard another beep which told me it had dropped by 30 Beats Per Minute (BPM). That would give me ample time to work before we had to stop again. Soon we were off and ascending the steep rocky path above Glencoe.

Measuring Heart Rate

“Accurately measure your heart rate during and after training.”

Even with a healthy heart, there are still a few things it’s good to know about your heart as you start your journey into training. It is definitely worth the investment of getting a smart watch or some device with which you can accurately measure your heart rate during and after training.

Heart Rate measured on my watch

Of course it is also possible to physically measure your pulse if you do not have a device. If manually measuring your pulse rate, I would recommend measuring for a full minute while standing still. More information on how to measure your pulse can be found here.

In order to make sense of your heart rate, there are some rates that you should become familiar with. The basic two are Resting Heart Rate and Maximum Heart Rate.

Resting Heart Rate

“Your Resting Heart Rate can give you an idea of your fitness level for your age and gender.”

Resting Heart Rate (Sometimes known as Resting Pulse) is your heart rate when you are stationary and relaxed. It is best measured just after you get up in the morning as even just wandering around the house or the office may raise your heart rate somewhat.

A time and place to take your resting pulse. Bed in a tent in the Serengeti Sep, 2018

As it varies dependant on age, gender and general fitness level, it would be very difficult to say any rate is good or bad. Some indications are given here but, at this stage, it is enough just to know what it is when you are in good health.

Your Resting Heart Rate can give you an idea of your fitness level for your age and gender. In very general terms, fitter people tend to have lower resting Heart Rates. Taking your resting Heart Rate regularly can also give an indication of your health. Noticing an unexplained rise in Resting Heart Rate can be an early indication that you are becoming unwell. In my case, colds and stomach bugs have been preceded by a rise in Resting Pulse Rate.

Max Heart Rate (MHR)

“I feel breathless, anxious and my brain is generally screaming at me to stop.”

A Max Heart Rate moment at the top of Scafell Pike, Aug 2018

Max Heart Rate (MHR) or Max Pulse Rate (MPR) as it is sometimes known, is the maximum heart rate that you should work up to when exercising. The rule of thumb to calculate it is to subtract your age from 220. I am 53 years old so, in my case, my MHR is 167 (220-53) Beats Per Minute (BPM). When I am exercising I should try to avoid allowing my heart rate to exceed 167 BPM and, when it reaches this level, I should try to slow down a little in order to let it drop.

Even without measuring my heart rate, it is easy to tell when it is at or around MHR. I feel breathless, anxious and my brain is generally screaming at me to stop whatever physical activity has taken my heart rate to this level. I normally want to slow down as much as I need to slow down.

Whether exercising or not, when we are stressed or anxious, we enter into a cycle which tends to increase our heart rate. Sensing danger our brain releases adrenalin to prime our body for action. Our breathing becomes quick and shallow and our heart rate starts to rise… which triggers our brain to sense danger and so the cycle continues. If you are in good health however, it is possible to control your heart rate simply by reversing that cycle.

Slow down. Just like, when driving, the first action to slow down is take your foot off the accelerator, when exercising the first action you can take to reduce your heart rate is slow down. If you are running, walk or if you are walking stop and sit down if possible.

Stop and sit down if possible. My brother, Abel, ascending Stob Na Broige, Mar 2017

Your heart rate can be reduced further by slowing your breathing. For me, even just three slow deep breaths in and out can drop my heart rate by 10 BPM. Whether you’ve slowed to a walk, standing still or sat down, make a conscious effort to slow your breathing and, as your breathing slows and deepens, your heart rate will drop.

Another bonus of deep breathing during some form of a rest is that you have a better chance of getting more oxygen down to your legs and thus reducing muscle pain and avoiding cramps. This shall be discussed in more detail in the next post in this series.

To fine tune your heart rate, it’s all about your state of mind. As anyone who practices mindfulness or meditation can tell you, picturing positive images helps release serotonin in the brain which has the effect of reducing your heart rate… which tells your brain the world is good and so the cycle repeats.

In summary, whenever you become breathless, anxious and in need of a rest during exercise, this is a good indication that your heart rate may be approaching or at MHR. In order to reduce it;

  • Slow Down
  • Take slow deep breaths
  • Think positive

Taking frequent rests during exercise and applying the techniques above will help you to maintain a healthy margin between your current heart rate and MHR. Maintaining this margin will enable you to work safely and enjoy the activity more.

Click on the image below if you would like to read my previously published article – Relax And Count To Five – which explores how to control your heart rate during a 10K Race.

Relax And Count To Five, Stride Magazine, 2009

Performance Measured Through Heart Rate

“It’s worth looking at some aspects of your heart rate which can tell you about your performance during a physical activity.”

Now you know how to control your heart rate, it’s worth looking at some aspects of your heart rate which can tell you about your performance during a physical activity. This can be looked at in more detail referring to the image below from a recent Training Session.

Training Session involving a series of walks and short jogs

What the image is showing is my heart rate measured during a short training session which involved a series of walks and jogs. The data is taken from my Smart Watch which is a Suunto Trainer. However this is just one of many watches and Apps available to measure performance during sports.

Looking at the coloured Heart Rate zones between the graphs shows that there was no time during the session when my heart rate registered in the red zone which represents the highest heart rates. This means that I was training well within my capabilities. Of course, had I been covering a more intensive session such as sprint training, there would be no problem with seeing some of the session at the higher heart rates.

Heart Rate follows Pace

What can also be seen from the image is what I would call a healthy correlation between the charts measuring heart rate and pace. Every time my pace dropped from a jog to a walk, my heart rate dropped by about 20 to 30 BPM. This is a good indication of recovery from an activity.

Steady Heart Rate over Varying Terrain

Whether running or hiking over varying terrain, a good practice to remain comfortable and cover long distances is to vary your pace according to the terrain such that your heart rate remains relatively constant. Hence you can maintain a healthy margin between your current heart rate and MHR. This is illustrated below.

Measurements from my trek to the Sloy Dam from Inveruglas on Loch Lomond side. Mar, 2020

As can be seen, despite a climb and descent of 300m each way, my heart rate sat relatively steady and never came close to MHR. This an ideal margin for endurance activities.

Heart Rate And Altitude

“Our Heart Rate and our Raspatory Rate (Breaths per minute) may start to rise in order to bring in sufficient oxygen.”

A final subject to touch on while discussing Heart Rate is to look at the effects on Heart Rate, Raspatory Rate and Oxygen Saturation (or SpO2) at Altitude.

Typically above 3,000m above Mean Sea Level, our bodies will start to react to the reduced amount of Oxygen in the air. This means that our Heart Rate and our Raspatory Rate (Breaths per minute) may start to rise in order to bring in sufficient oxygen. This means that we need to reduce our physical work rate in order to maintain a healthy margin between our current heart rate and MHR. I found that the importance of maintaining a slow enough pace not to push my heart rate up was absolutely paramount at altitude in order not to feel sick or as if I was going to pass out.

Measuring the oxygen saturation in your blood using a device called a Pulse Oximeter, is a great way to see how your body is coping with altitude. At sea level a healthy person would expect to see levels of around 97% or above. Below 95% would be a case for some concern and anywhere near 90% and you may want to seek urgent medical attention.

Pulse Oximeter showing Oxygen Saturation and Heart Rate

At altitude however, with so much less oxygen in the air, the rate will inevitably drop. On Kilimanjaro our Guides would only let us continue up the mountain as long as our SpO2 level was 80% or above. At Gorakshep, on the return from Everest Base Camp, my SpO2 briefly dropped below 70% and I was suffering a lot of the early symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Fortunately we were on our descent which is the only cure for symptoms of AMS.

You can find out more about AMS and how to cope at High Altitude by clicking to my Blog Post here.

Next Post

Stretches and warm up exercises.

Now that we have covered the most important muscle of all, the heart, the next post will look at stretches and warm up exercises. These make sure the rest of our muscles are kept in the best condition to support us through our activities.

Read The Series

This post is part of a series of posts which provides practical hints from my own personal experience to help overweight people get into adventures such as Mountaineering, Distance Running or Open Water Swimming. To read the series from the start click here.

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Life and Wellbeing Mental Health Mental Health Recovery Military Running Swimming Travel Trekking Weight Loss

How The Tortoise Won ‘That Race’

It’s more about taking part than looking the part.

Capturing the pain of climbing in the Campsie’s, Mar 2014

If I asked you which is faster, a hare or a tortoise, you’d probably laugh and think it was a trick question right? For sure, you’d know the answer. But did you know that, on average, Tortoises outlive hares by a factor of about 20 times the lifespan? Perhaps there’s a lot to be said for taking your time and moving at your own pace.

We all know the story of The Hare And The Tortoise. The slowest of the animals takes on the fastest in a race. As the arrogant hare takes a nap close to the finish line, the lowly tortoise plods past and wins the race.

Slow and steady wins the day. Credit – Bedtime Stories Collection

Very often in my experience the proverbial hare is all you can see or hear from when looking into a mountain climb, a run or a swim. All too often, I feel very like the tortoise. The fact is however, you can be the tortoise and still reach the summit or cross the finish line. All it takes is a sense of adventure and some humility to accept your physical limits and work within them.

Perceived Marathon

“People who were nothing like me doing something which would be impossible to me.”

Lets look at the London Marathon as an example. I was ecstatic when I got the letter last year telling me that I had got through the ballot to run in this year’s London Marathon. I eagerly started watching videos on YouTube to see everybody’s stories of the previous runs. My screen was full of pictures of Athletes and advice on how to run a sub 3 hour marathon. The London Marathon, as depicted in those videos, was for people who were nothing like me doing something which would be impossible to me.

Even searching ‘London Marathon in 7 hours’ you still see nothing but athletes and even a video of someone completing a sub 3 hour marathon. Credit YouTube

Real Marathon

“You could finish that marathon within your own capabilities and with time to spare.”

If you search beyond the videos however, the fact is that those who complete the London Marathon before 7pm on race day qualify for a medal. With a start close to 10am that’s almost 9 hours to complete the course. My training runs often have as much, or more, walking than running in them. Certainly one of the paces I will describe and demonstrate in a future post covers a 7 hour marathon. You may feel like the proverbial tortoise watching the videos online but you could finish that marathon within your own capabilities and with time to spare.

Find Your Own Pace

“Having the humility to accept your physical limits and work within them … can bring you to some of the most amazing moments of your life.”

Walking at the back, Kilimanjaro Sep 2018

It was on the second day of the Kilimanjaro Trek, as we climbed out of the jungle into the long grass towards the Shira Plateau, that I started to fall behind. I knew that a 30 second burst of pace would take me back to the main group. Previous experience of endurance events helped me to stay where I was, walking within myself, at a pace I knew I could manage. Had I pushed to catch the group and struggled to stay with them, my trek would have been over as soon as we reached altitude.

Experiencing the breath-taking views from Stella Point a few days later, on one of the most incredible mornings of my life, cost little more than swallowing a wee bit of pride and finishing 3 to 5 minutes behind the main group each day of the trek.

Having the humility to accept your physical limits and work within them, even if other people seem more physically capable than you, can bring you to some of the most amazing moments of your life. More to the point, high up in the mountains, it can actually save your life.

Slowly, Slowly

“I’ve learnt to say “Slowly, slowly” in Nepali, Swahili and Arabic.”

I’ve learnt to say “Slowly, slowly” in NepaliSwahili and Arabic. These are the languages of the countries in which I have climbed over 4,000m above mean sea level. I’ve seen people race ahead only to be lifted off the mountain hours later or the next morning suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). In the meantime those of us plodding along at the back get to reach our goals.

At altitude, you may have to stop for a rest and a breath after every single step. The longest mile I have ever covered in my life was the mile from the Mera La to High Camp, a climb of 500 vertical meters on the Mera Glacier and it took 5 hours. A general rule of thumb for ascending at high altitude is that it takes around 1 hour to cover 100 vertical meters.

Head Above Water

“I was swimming ‘head up’ breaststroke.”

Open Water Swimathon Course, River Mersey, Liverpool, Sep 2017

Almost immediately after the start of the Open Water Swimathon 2017, I found myself last swimmer by a good distance. By the time I reached the first Safety Boat they were asking if I was ok. Same as I completed the first of three 500m laps of the Open Water Swimming area of the Liverpool Water Sports Centre on the banks of the River Mersey.

The fact was that, where most of the swimmers were cutting slickly through the water swimming front crawl, I was swimming ‘head up’ breaststroke. Some people told me afterwards that the reason there was concern shown for me was that the stroke I was using is generally used when swimmers either tire or get into trouble.

I had decided to swim breaststroke because I knew I could cover a distance with it. My front crawl was clumsy and no way I’d have completed 1,500m with it. In the end up, slow as I was, I finished the course, got my medal and was proud as punch.

Slow And Steady

“We can still venture into the realm of the hare and finish the race.”

Walk every time you have to on a run and you’ll complete a Marathon. Slow down high on a mountain to save vital oxygen and you can reach the summit. Swim whatever stroke you’re comfortable with on an Open Water Swim and you’ll cross the finish. We may move slow and steady like a tortoise but we can still venture into the realm of the hare and finish the race. Whether the hare falls asleep and we win or not doesn’t really matter that much. It’s the taking part, as they say, that counts after all.

Open Water Swimathon Finish, River Mersey, Liverpool, Sep 2017

Next Post

Despite the magic we can achieve regardless of our weight, being overweight comes with it’s own physical challenges. Especially when we take our bodies into an environment or a challenge designed to test stamina and fitness. Starting with Heart Rate, my next few posts will deal with the physical challenges I have experienced in my journey and show some simple exercises to overcome them. It will be fun!

Read The Series

This post is part of a series of posts which provides practical hints from my own personal experience to help overweight people get into adventures such as Mountaineering, Distance Running or Open Water Swimming. To read the series from the start click here.

Like, Share and Subscribe

Please support this page by hitting the Like and re-blogging or sharing through Social Media using the buttons below. If you scroll to the bottom of the page you can also leave a comment and subscribe to the blog to receive automatic updates whenever I post.

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Adventure Beer Life and Wellbeing Mental Health Recovery Running Travel Trekking Weight Loss

Worth Your Weight In Gold

Learning to carry your excess weight can be just as amazing as managing to lose it.

I looked across at the summit of Everest glowing in the newly risen sun and caught my breath. From my vantage point, just over 6,000m above sea level, high on the Mera Glacier, I was seeing the world as only Gods and Elite Mountaineers tend to see it. I am neither God nor Elite Mountaineer. In fact I am quite overweight. But I have long since learnt that the realms of adventure and incredible achievement are there for anyone regardless of your weight. You just have to know how to carry yourself into them.

Everest in the sunrise from the Mera Glacier, Mera Peak, Oct 2017

Body Mass Index (BMI)

My Body Mass Index (BMI) has been in the obese category for the past 20 years. I’ve tried every weigh loss plan on the planet, resolved to change my life every January 1st and obsessed over everything I’ve put in my mouth for years. The only lasting loss seemed to be my happiness.

Click on the image below to learn more about Body Mass Index (BMI)

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a measure of your body weight in relation to your height. The above image is from the NHS Website where you can find out more about BMI

Amazing At Any Weight

I’d often thought about the person I’d become once that excess weight was gone. Confident, sexy, fit, healthy and jogging through life. Yet it seemed like an impossible dream because I kept trying to lose the weight but never managed. Somehow I realized that I can run that Marathon, swim across the sea or climb in the mountains. I don’t have to lose weight to be that person. I’d been that person all along and just didn’t realize it.

The power of that realization was incredible and lead me into adventures and achievements I had never thought possible. I’ve listed some of the high points in that journey below. Everything on that list was achieved whilst my BMI has been between 37 and 40 (Well within the obese range for an adult male).

Click on the links in the list to find out more about the events listed.

  • Summited 54 Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000ft)
  • Completed 3 trips to the Himalayas reaching Everest Base Camp and a height of 6,140m on Mera Peak
  • Reached Stella Point (5,685m) on Kilimanjaro
Stella Point, Kilimanjaro Sep 2018
  • Reached the highest point in North Africa. Summit of Mt Toubkal (4,167m) in the Atlas Mountains
  • Completed the Trossachs Plod, 31 miles across country in Scotland in 14 hours.
  • Completed the Great Glencoe Challenge (26.2 miles across rough terrain from Glencoe to Fort William in Scotland) twice in under 12 hours (11:22 and 11:52)
Top of the Devil’s Staircase in Glencoe, Great Glencoe Challenge, Jul 2017
  • Completed a cumulative Channel Swim over 12 weeks in a swimming pool three times (max distance swum 1.75 miles in one swim)
  • Swum a mile in the open water in the Mersey in Liverpool, UK
Open Water Swimathon. Mersey, Liverpool UK, Sep 2017
  • Jog Scotland Jog Leader for 2 years, completed the Great Scottish Run Half Marathon twice and the Men’s Health 10k four times.
Great Scottish Run, Glasgow, Sep 2007

You don’t have to put the achievement of your dreams off until the weight comes off. My story is evidence of that and, by telling it over a series of blog posts, I am going to use it as a framework of practical tips to help anyone who wants to follow a similar path.

Breaking Down The Barriers

  • First we’ll discuss humility, knowing your limits and setting achievable goals. There’s no point in watching an 8 stone athlete on Youtube telling you how to run a sub 3:30:00 Marathon. You’re just watching someone you’ll never be telling you how to do something you know is impossible. It’s the guy in the mirror, not the guy on the telly who’s going to do this stuff and I assure you, you can do a Marathon!
  • Next is to look at the physical aspects of carrying your weight. I suffer from High Blood Pressure, have pulled many muscles and often have lower back pain. I’ve taken it all onto the roads, into the water and the mountains. We will look at stretches, warm ups and easy physical steps to deal with these problems. It will be fun!
  • It can be difficult turning up at the start of a run or meeting the team for a trek for the first time when you know you don’t ‘look the part’ and you think everyone is looking at you. This post will talk about finding the magic inside of you and believing in it despite the looks, comments and events going on around you.

Starting Your Adventure

Start of The Great Glencoe Challenge, Glencoe Jul 2016

After reading the preceding articles you may have discovered your inner warrior and have limbered up, stretched off and be rearing to go and do something amazing. This being the case, there are three articles you can choose from to get you started. Read them all, find the one that fires you up the most and let’s go!

  • How to get started towards your first Marathon, Half, 10K or 5K. It’s not so much as going for a run where every walk’s a fail. In the early days it’s about going for a walk where every jog’s a bonus.
  • Getting into the water. Whether completing one of the distances in Swimathon, completing a cumulative Channel Swim over a period of time or heading into the open water, there’s organizations, events and holidays which you can enjoy.
  • The call to the mountains. Many of the mountains in Scotland have terrain or stretches which compares closely to the treks and climbs on some of the highest mountains in the world. Then there’s The Lakes in England, and Snowdonia in Wales. The initial call for me was the call to Everest but there’s many Treks in Nepal, Kilimanjaro and Toubkal in Africa and many more around the world. This post will cover the main practical aspects to get you started. I have also written a series of Mountaineering articles which you can start to follow here.

It’s Still Good To Lose Weight

I will always continue to try and lose weight. Even a 5% loss of bodyweight can have tremendous benefits to health.

Click on the image below to see 15 benefits of losing 5% of your bodyweight.

15 things that losing 5% of your body weight can do for you. Taken from WebMD

The fact remains however that many of the health issues and mental challenges associated with being overweight can be managed or overcome. Click here to read my next post where we’ll start on the journey by looking at knowing your limits and setting realistic goals. I hope you stay with me through this journey.

Great Glencoe Challenge 2017
Guides and Porters (and Will and Clair) dinging the Kilimanjaro Song, Kilimanjaro 2018

If you would like to discuss writing or music for any project or event, please feel free to contact me with the details here.

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Christian Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Religion Travel Trekking

High Spirits

Life Beyond The Summit

Climbing wearily up onto the Deurali La above the small settlement of Goripani we stood amongst lines of Buddhist Prayer Flags strewn among the rocks and fluttering in the morning breeze. This was my first trek to Nepal and the first time I had come upon these flags in the mountains. As Thakur, my guide, told me all about them I found myself contemplating religion beyond the bounds of my own Christianity and eternal life beyond the very summits amongst which we stood.

Despite being raised a Catholic, I have long since held the belief that there are many ways to worship. Standing among the foothills of the Anapurna Range that morning surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world I felt humble and at peace. I offered up my own silent prayer with those I was told were fluttering out of the flags. My fascination and love of the spiritual powers attributed to the mountains and those who live among them began.

Buddhism is the main religion among the Sherpa people who live in the mountains of Nepal. Symbols of the Buddhist Religion are everywhere along the mountain trails of the Himalayas and it seemed a constant stream of prayers was rising up among them.

Prayer Flags

The colours of the Buddhist Prayer Flags are symbolic of the elements of the world.

  • Blue for the sky or space
  • Yellow for the earth
  • Green for water
  • Red for fire
  • White for air

What I love about the Prayer Flags however is that prayers are imprinted on them and it is believed that, as the flags flutter in the wind, those prayers are carried to the heavens.

Prayer Flags at the Chukpo Lari Everest Base Camp Trek, Oct 2016

This was particularly moving for me a few years later when, on the Everest Base Camp Trek, I stood in the Chukpo Lari. This is an area of stone cairns and prayer flags standing as memorials to many of the climbers who have died on Everest.

Prayer Wheels

Prayer Wheels On The Outskirts Of Lukla Everest Base Camp Trek, Oct 2016

It’s almost impossible to trek in the Himalayas without coming across Prayer Wheels. These are vertical cylinders on which prayers are printed around the outside. It is believed that the act of spinning them as you walk past has the same merits as saying the prayers printed on them. Often there is a bell which sounds as the wheels rotate which just adds to the tranquil sounds in the mountains.

Giant Buddhist Prayer Wheel in Khumjung Everest Base Camp Trek, Oct 2016

Temples

One of the most amazing views I have ever seen opened in front of me as I arrived on the plateau in the settlement of Thyangboche. Everest and Lhotse among the line of mountains towering above and directly in front of us. To my left was the world famous monastery of Thyangboche. The feeling was as though standing before the very alter of Heaven itself.

Everest and Lhotse from Thyangboche Everest Base Camp Trek Oct 2016

After a short acclimatisation walk, we were soon back in the settlement where we were allowed in to see the Monks conducting a service. Listening to the low drone of mantras recited by the monks and the clang of small symbols in the soft light of the temple, the serenity was incredible. We could indeed have been sitting in eternity.

Credit: Wild Films India

The Berbers

The religion prevalent among the Berber People who live in High Atlas Mountains in Morocco is Muslim. Despite the different religion from the Sherpas in Nepal, the faith of the people is just as strong and the welcome just as warm.

Berber Village of Armed in the atlas Mountains Mount Toubkal Trek, Aug 2019

In this part of the world it’s the greetings from the local people, as much as the sincere and friendly welcome they give you, which shows their religious beliefs. “As-Salamu Alaykum” is the main greeting you will hear which means, “Peace be upon you”.

Often, when we said that we were heading to the summit of Mount Toubkal (The highest of the Atlas Mountains) the reply was, “InshAllah” which translates to, “If God wills it.” In the phrase there is both the expression of the hope that you will be successful and an acknowledgement that nothing happens unless it is God’s will.

The Song Of Kilimanjaro

The prevalence of Christianity in the region of Kilimanjaro was very apparent to me as soon as I headed out to explore close to the small town of Moshi. Most of the local population were processing back down the road into town from local Churches.

If his name alone didn’t hint at his religion, Abraham, our lead guide for the Kilimanjaro climb told us that he had previously trained to be a Priest. When telling us how far it was to each of the camps along the way, he would often joke, “Trust me. I’m Catholic. I can’t lie.”

Kilimanjaro as seen from Moshi Kilimanjaro Trek, Sep 2018

On summit day, as I desperately struggled towards Stella Point, Abraham’s conviction drove my spirit on. “Yes you can!” he told us many times as we pushed ever upwards.

One of the Porters called Alias did everything to get me to the top. Carrying my pack and sometimes physically supporting me as I slumped exhausted along the path.

Though the songs the guides and porters sang as they carried heavy loads up the mountain weren’t necessarily Christian, their humility, generosity and their actions spoke volumes to their Christian faith.

Kilimanjaro Song performed by Abraham and his team from Kandoo Adventures (Special shout out to Will and Clair who joined in the dancing) 🙂 Kilimanjaro Trek Sep 2018

Common Good

Having encountered many different religions and cultures on my travels, I would say that mountain people and the lands they inhabit have much in common. Whether Buddhist, Muslim or Christian, they possess humility and charity in equal abundance. Perhaps they are touched by the enormity and sheer raw beauty of the lands they occupy. For sure they enhance it with their spirit and by their actions.

The story of my Kilimanjaro Trek in 3 minutes Kilimanjaro, Sept 2018

Categories
Adventure Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Travel Trekking

The Turning Point

The Day I Turned Around And Started To Climb

For those of us who climb hills and mountains the notion of turning around often conjures images of failure to summit, near success or unplanned descent for reasons of safety. For me, there was one particular turn around which was actually the start of some amazing adventures. Over 50 Munro’s (Mountains over 3,000ft) in Scotland and trips to the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro and the High Atlas Mountains. And all because I turned around one day on the outskirts of the small Scottish Highland Town of Kinlochleven and started to climb the route we had just descended.

Glencoe To Kinlochleven

Route from Glencoe to Devil’s Staircase along the west Highland Way (Credit Walkhighland)

We had parked the car in Glencoe with a plan to ascent the Devil’s Staircase, a relatively steep climb of around 1,800ft, and then descend the 4 miles or so along the West Highland Way into Kinlochleven. After a break for lunch, we would turn around and walk back the route we had come, back to Glencoe and the car.

Ascending the Devil’s Staircase looking across to Glen Etive

Winter Conditions

Despite the season being early spring, we hadn’t climbed too high before we reached the snowline. With snow and ice along much of the route, the going was tough and slow. Another feature of winter climbing also came into play where clothing and equipment were frequently changed to accommodate the terrain and the weather. I was quite inexperienced on the hills at that time and pretty much had enough by the time we reached Kinlochleven.

Crampons. Just some of the equipment and clothing that gats frequently put on and off during winter climbing

I sat, eating my sandwich mulling a very generous offer my brother had made. I could go into town and find a bar while he walked the 7 miles back to Glencoe, got the car and came to pick me up. I decided that was a good plan and I’d head into town as soon as we finished lunch.

Change Of Heart

Then I changed my mind. There was nothing noble or positive that made me change my mind. I just wasn’t too keen on facing the boredom of sitting in a pub. There was also an over riding sense of failure in going into town. I somehow knew that if I walked off the route that day, I wouldn’t be walking onto any other routes any time soon.

We were training for the Great Glencoe Challenge later in the summer. 26.2 miles from Glencoe to Fort William across rough mountainous terrain in 12 hours or less. I was also thinking of doing the Everest Base Camp Trek later in the year and I wasn’t getting any younger. There was just too much at stake to throw the towel in then.

We finished lunch, turned round and started the long climb out of Kinlochleven back towards Glencoe. It was then that the magic started to happen and a spell was cast which has bound me to the mountains ever since.

Falling In Love

First was the realization that I could do this no matter how much I had doubted myself before. We climbed steadily higher but, though tired, I was still going.

Looking across to the Mamores from above Kinlochleven on the return route.

A few miles along the track and we stepped off the forest trail into the open moorland of the hills between Kinlochleven and Glencoe. Soon we were skirting streams which were frozen solid and walking into the snowline. As we put our crampons on and headed on up, there was a sense of adventure.

My Brother, Abel approaching the top of the Devil’s Staircase from Kinlochleven

As we rested at the top of the Devil’s Staircase with the car in sight below us, the beauty of the world around us was breath-taking. The sun was setting over Glencoe and the snow clad mountains along her flanks were glowing pink in the setting sun. Across the Glen from where we sat was the mighty, stunning, Buachaille, one of Scotland’s most famous and beautiful mountains situated at the entrance to Glencoe.

That moment outside Kinlochleven was a definite turning point in my life. Even as I crossed the mountains and descended into the town on the outward path, the mountains were a foreign, tough and scary place for me. Walking among them was a nice idea but the reality sucked. Yet, after facing the fear of those first steps back into the mountains on the return journey, quite unexpectedly, I fell in love with them.

Sunset over the top of the Devil’s Staircase
My Kilimanjaro Climb
Another Turning Point In My Life
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Life and Wellbeing Mental Health Recovery Mountaineering Peace Poetry Travel Trekking Writers

The High Mountains

I wrote this poem a while back to capture some of the feelings and the beauty which can be found high in the mountains. Hope you like it.

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Adventure Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Travel Trekking

Turning Back

High on Ben Nevis, tantalisingly close to the summit in the middle of the night, we had to make a painful decision. But now I’m here to tell the tale and live to climb another day.

We sat silent in the fast disappearing darkness as the dawn spread over the world thousands of feet below us. It had been a logical place for a rest. The start of the Zig zags on the ascent towards the summit ridge of Ben Nevis along the Mountain Path. Despite the sub zero temperatures of the pre dawn high on the mountain we were comfortable enough in our winter clothing. But still, too much was wrong and we had to make the call and start our descent. For sure Ben Nevis would still be there. By descending now we were giving ourselves the best chance of coming back to try again another day. A moment of pain and regret as we glanced up at the summit ridge now tantalizingly close in the morning sky and then we started back down towards the Red Burn and the plateau she cuts through.

Taking a rest at the start of the snowline in the small hours of the morning. Ben Nevis May 2018

Vital Skill

Both my brother and I are relatively experienced in the mountains. Looking ahead towards an attempt I would be making on Kilimanjaro later in the year, our aim was to complete an overnight ascent of Ben Nevis in preparation for the summit bid on Kilimanjaro. What we ended up practicing was some endurance techniques and knowing when the best thing to do is turn back. The latter may sound simple but it’s arguably the most vital skill any mountaineer has to perfect.

Man Flu

It was nothing more complex or dangerous than a common cold that caused the problems but we’d taken that common cold into an environment where it could contribute to conditions far more deadly.

Scottish Weather

“The weather was being typically Scottish”

I knew I was far from my best within the first 600ft of the ascent. We climbed into the darkness from the Ben Nevis Centre to a small bench that sits at a bend in the path as it winds it’s way up the mountain towards a gully. I slumped on the bench already starting to feel exhausted, sweating profusely and dehydrated. The weather was being typically Scottish and contrary. Hot and clammy one minute, jacket off, smir and rain the next, jacket on, and my moral was sinking the more we climbed as we headed towards the steep ascent of the gully.

The Climb To Half Way

“We agreed to head up to the top of the gully and the plateau where the track crosses the Red Burn and turn back there.”

Progress was slow, stop, start as I tried to raise my morale and we climbed higher with a steep drop into the burn cascading far below in the darkness. We could see the campsite of Glen Nevis as an Island of light far below. During one of our rests in the gully came the first conversation about turning back. Despite frequent drinks from my camel pack I was still dehydrated and feeling quite weak. I was still up for the challenge and ate what I could of a Snickers bar to see if some sugar would boost me on. We agreed to head up to the top of the gully and the plateau where the track crosses the Red Burn and turn back there.

As it happened the Mountain Trail had undergone significant repairs since the last time either of us had been on it and the going up the side of the gully was much easier than either of us expected We were soon walking across the plateau towards the Red Burn. Reaching here raised my morale tremendously and I started to think we might make the top. Even despite the slight incline and easy walking on the plateau however I was starting to feel exhausted. Lack of sleep, my cold and the consequent dehydration were taking their toll.

We took another rest just before crossing the Red Burn to prepare for the ascent we knew would soon follow. I was unable to quench my thirst, very much in need of energy but, as a result of the dehydration, felt sick and unable to eat anything. Things were getting worse. “If only I had some dextrose tablets.” I said to my brother. He laughed and produced a pack from his pocket. Small tablets, dextrose are nothing but sugar and energy but they are small enough to eat even when you feel sick. I had 2 of them.

Snowline At The Red Burn

It was late spring but there can be snow high on Ben Nevis all year round. Where the Mountain Trail crosses the Red Burn, we’d started to reach the snow line. Around 3am we were into sub zero temperatures and so we changed into our winter jackets and headed across the Red Burn towards the Zig Zags.

Seeing how regularly I was eating the Dextrose Tablets my brother was worried. He reminded me that we had already done fantastic and to remember not to push too hard. We agreed to head on up but if I didn’t feel any better we could turn round at any time. As we started to climb the Zig Zags I started to feel increasingly dizzy in addition to the nausea. I called for a quick rest to drop my pulse and then headed slowly on to round the first bend in the Zig Zags. Climbing slowly on up the second part, we reached a point where the path became notably eroded and I called for a second stop. Even sitting I could feel the dizziness and my brother looked on concerned as I crunched on yet another Dextrose Tablet.

Turning Round at The Zig Zags

“If I passed out then my brother would be left trying to deal with 18 stone of limp body thousands of feet up on Ben Nevis in the middle of the night.”

Looking at the practical situation there was little chance of anything other than further decline. The coffee in my flask, which could provide essential core heat in the sub zero temperatures, was untouched. I felt way too sick. Sources of energy such as chocolate and a sandwich I had packed were untouched for the same reason. Due to my nausea my intake of water was becoming more like sips and neither it nor the Dextrose Tablets were bringing any improvement.

Then I considered the possibilities. If I was sick then, already dehydrated, my condition would deteriorate rapidly and significantly. If I passed out then my brother would be left trying to deal with 18 stone of limp body thousands of feet up on Ben Nevis in the middle of the night. Worst still, however remote the possibility, was the chance of entering into the deadly cycle of exhaustion and hypothermia. In freezing conditions exhaustion aids the onset of hypothermia which in turn increases the exhaustion. Ultimately exhaustion makes progress impossible and hypothermia kills you.

“Sorry Bro,” I said. “I’m going to have to call it.”

“Head back down?” He asked.

“Yep. Think it’s best.” I said.

My Brother – Abel McBride – back down at the Half Way Plateau as the sun starts to rise. Ben Nevis, May 2018

Valuable Lessons Learnt

“There was no regret about not making the summit”

He was glad I’d called it a day. He was trying not to make the decision for me but, looking at my condition, he had been getting close. He was full of encouragement reminding me how far we’d got. As we descended he was constantly checking everything was ok. Back down in the gully around 5am we met the first of the morning ascenders and soon we were passing the unbroken queue of trekkers that is the working day on Ben Nevis. We were back at camp around 7am. I climbed into my tent and drifted off to sleep reflecting on a night well spent. There was no regret about not making the summit considering the beauty of the surroundings, the sense of achievement at what we did cover and the valuable lessons learnt.

Back down to climb another day just above Glen Nevis. Ben Nevis, May 2018
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Adventure Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Pictures Travel Trekking

When A Dream Becomes Real

When I was really young I used to climb the stairs and say I was climbing a mountain. Later, when the snow landed, I’d sometimes stand on the hills in Queens Park in the South Side of Glasgow and pretend I was high on the snow covered mountains. Shortly after sunrise on 29th October 2017 I had to admit that I couldn’t keep pushing for the summit of Mera Peak and turned back to start my descent. I took the picture below capturing Everest and some of the highest mountains in the world glowing in the sunrise. At 20,446ft (6,140m) it’s the highest picture I’ve ever taken and, standing in the snow high up in the Himalayas, it captured a moment of my actual dreams.

Everest in the distance from 20,446ft (6140m) AMS Mera Peak Trek 2017 The highest and one of the most beautiful pictures I have taken.
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Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Travel Trekking

High Tea

If you’ve ever drunk a flask of tea to pass the time of an evening, chances are you’ve climbed a mountain, camped out or trekked a wild trail.

Mint Tea with honey

Drinking a flask of tea on a school night is a habit I’ve brought home from the Tea Houses and tents of Nepal and the African Camps on Kilimanjaro or the route to Mount Toubkal. Though it tends to be coffee when I’m climbing in Scotland, a flask with a hot brew is always with me when I’m out in winter.

Lemon, Honey/Lemon or Honey/Lemon/Ginger, whatever the flavour of tea served up by the Sherpas in Nepal, it was always welcome and often a life saver. On Kilimanjaro it was actually mostly hot chocolate that we tended to drink as we snacked on popcorn at the end of each day’s trekking. My favourite was the Mint Tea shared with the Berber People among the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

A cup of Lemon Tea served by Sherpas whilst camped on the Mera La at 5,300m on the way to Mera Peak Oct 2017 (Still taken from the video Mera Peak by Abel M)

Read my post How To Stay Hydrated In The Mountains for more on tea and other drinks.

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Humour Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Travel Trekking

Nepali Flat

Sometimes you have to search deep inside yourself, move past all the doubt and self loathing and in there somewhere you will find your spirit. That naïve and powerful thing of playfulness and adventure that always knew that everything is possible. And you have to nurture it and believe in it because so much is possible when you come to realize how much it believes in you.

If you ever walk the endless and arduous undulations among the valleys and foothills of the Himalayas, what the locals describe as ‘Nepali Flat’, you’ll understand what I mean.

Mera Peak Day 3 Briefing

Sitting exhausted and aching but feeling content in the Tea House at the end of Day 2 of the Mera Trek and Ang, our Lead Guide, called for silence so he could tell us about day 3. ‘Please give us an easy day!’ I silently hoped as he started into the schedule.

Didn’t sound too bad at first. Along a path, a few ups and downs and then we’ll get to see Mera Peak in the distance for the first time. So far so good I thought…

On the trail on Day 3 with Mera Peak above my head in the distance Oct 2017

“We’ll start our decent into the valley…”

“Then we’ll start our decent into the valley,” He continued.

My ears pricked up… how far? I wondered…

“it’s 1,200m down.” He said.

Holy crap! I thought

“And be careful of your footing because it’s very steep and lots of loose scree…”

My though process started swearing profusely.

“We go down for about an hour and then we stop for morning tea break.”

Hold the bloody bus! He’s already described three weeks of walking and all we’ve made it to is morning tea break?!! I hope it’s special tea!!!

Above: Looking across the valley from ‘Tea Break’ to the location of our Tea House on the other side of the valley where we’d be stopping for the night. Oct 2017
Below: Zoomed in view of the Tea Houses where we’ll be stopping for the day

“We stop for lunch.”

“Then down to the bottom of the valley where we stop for our lunch.”

LUNCH?!!!!!! Having just descended 1,200m on a steep slope through loose scree my knees are going to feel like someone’s been playing xylophone on them for a month. I’m going to need 3 hours in a Jacuzzi with a litre of whisky.

A bowl of veg noodles some lemon tea and a 3 year old bar of chocolate isn’t going to work. Surely to God the afternoon walk MUST be easy!! Maybe a steady mile along a tarmac path?

“And then we go up…”

“After lunch we cross a bridge….”

Don’t say it I mentally pleaded, please don’t say it!

“and then we go up….” 

Awwww he said it!

“700m up towards the next valley where we stop at our Tea House for the night.”

He finished with a beaming smile as I cried silently into my look warm Veg Chow Mein.

“By some miracle I was still going.”

Next afternoon after crossing the bridge after lunch and we started our steep 700m ascent through the rocks and lush vegetation of the valley floor roasting in the afternoon sun of the Indian Sub Continent that I realized by some miracle I was still going.

My Group were eagerly climbing ahead and above me already and I plodded along at the back with Newang, the Sherpa who had been assigned to me so I could walk at my own pace. It dawned on me that my body was already exhausted and yet I had no doubt that I would make this 700m climb. The fact was that something far deeper and stronger than my body was driving me on.

Above: High on the Mera glacier at first light on Summit Day. I turned around shortly afterwards due to a mix of exhaustion and the effects of altitude at 6,140m
Below: This is why I do it. Everest over my shoulder taken from the entrance to High Camp on Mera Peak 5,800m Oct 2017